A recent exchange between political scientists Larry Bartels and John Hibbing in the Monkey Cage has focused on the value of the "biology and politics" approach.
Bartels argues that seeking to explain political attitudes and behavior using biological explanations "does not look worth the effort". His reasoning, in short, is that the real action of politics is in elite conflict that shapes and frames political debates and, thus, public opinion. In other words, without understanding elite debates about the death penalty, one cannot understand why American public opinion towards the death penalty has changed in the past two decades.
Hibbing disagrees, arguing that the disputes that underpin ideological (and thus partisan) conflict are fundamental and thus timeless. As a powerful example, Hibbing comments:
"50 years ago the issue was interracial marriage; today it is gay marriage; and 50 years from now it will be something else; but the differences between those who embrace and those who eschew new lifestyles are a constant."The same point might fairly be made about the death penalty: attitudes about the necessary level of punitiveness towards criminals have always been organized in a predictable fashion, even as norms about what constitutes sufficient punishment have changed (presumably, many contemporary proponents of the death penalty by lethal injection would recoil at the idea of a public hanging).
How to make sense of this debate? It's clear that deep-rooted biological and psychological factors shape our political attitudes. But so does the political environment in which we grow up and live. Imagine two boys with identical genetic/psychological dispositions trending towards authoritarianism--but one raised in small-town Nebraska and the other in a big-city union household. Both are, for various reasons, likely to remain in the hometowns and in the general social/religious communities in which they were raised. But the former is likely to become a staunch Republican while the latter is likely to become a Democrat. The environment clearly matters, though our predisposition do as well.
A comparativist's perspective helps in understanding this debate. One of the problems in some biology and politics research (or political psychology, generally) is that ideological descriptions like "conservatism" are used in a relatively fixed and (dare I say it?) American sense. And that's where I think much of this research misses the "politics" in this field.
My current research examines how authoritarianism shapes attitudes towards the European Union (answer: it does). One question I am exploring is how this relationship has changed. What I argue is that there was no relationship between authoritarianism and EU attitudes 25 years ago, because virtually no political elites described European integration as a threat to national sovereignty or community. Now, many elites do frame the EU in such terms, inspiring a "backlash" against the EU from authoritarians.
In short, politics matters is clear and predictable ways. So do genetic and psychological factors. Political attitudes reflect the intersection between the two.
So how should we treat the role of biological factors? My take is that humans have deep-rooted impulses that vary in predictable ways. Some of us are more risk-averse; some of us seek out new experiences. Some of us tend to see the world in "black and white" terms; others will see many shades of grey. And so on. This leads to predictable and stable preferences: towards authority, towards new lifestyles and social norms, towards competition and risk, etc.
"Politics" matters in shaping how certain issues will be considered--or whether they will be considered at all. To return to my research, European integration was not threatening to authoritarians in the 1980s--when more of the public debate emphasized its role in promoting peace and prosperity in Europe. Now it does, as political elites have started to criticize its effects on the nation. Consider another example, such as health care reform. In the United States, efforts to expand the government's role in managing health care can easily be framed as risky given that a new government system could end up being worse than the old system. In (say) the United Kingdom, efforts to introduce market-based health care reforms (thus reducing government's role) might similarly be framed as risky--but for the "opposite" reason. In short, we observe the effect of the same dispositional impulses (risk-aversion). But, in different contexts, we observe different reactions. And, as Hetherington and Weiler demonstrate in the US, the shape of elite conflict can also change over time, leading to different patterns of public opinion.
In short, what makes this approach interesting and relevant (I think) is the ability to study political behavior at the precise intersection of dispositional influences (including biology) and environmental factors (like elite conflict). This is easier to see when we move our focus beyond the United States.